Jean Charest says he wants the French-language rules in Quebec's Bill 101 to apply to federal institutions to help "promote and protect the French language and culture," but unlike the separatist Parti Québécois, the province's Liberal leader says he wouldn't actually amend the controversial law.

In a move that made headlines across the province in the last week of its election campaign, Charest seemed to suggest Monday he was amenable to extending Bill 101's application to the Quebec operations of federally chartered organizations. That would mean banks and post offices, as well as federal public servants working in Quebec, would be subject to rules on French-language signage and using French in the workplace.

It would also amount to a bold undertaking for the Liberals, who have always had to balance the ambitions of Quebec nationalists with their loyal anglophone and allophone constituencies.

'We should work together so that we're promoting and protecting the French language'—Liberal Leader Jean Charest

Charest was asked in French by a journalist, "You said you would be ready to consider applying Bill 101 to federal organizations and to businesses with a federal charter. Is that a pledge?"

The Liberal leader replied, also in French: "I'm ready to have that discussion with the federal government. And I think that the protection of language in Quebec is something that goes beyond jurisdictional borders in the sense that language is language, it is spoken, it's for us a part of our identity. And I think we can very easily sit down with the federal government to see how it can be a part of this Quebec consensus on the way we want to treat our language in Quebec."

The followup question was: "So that we be part of a round of negotiations?"

Charest answered, "Yes, and we don't need to amend the constitution to do that. We can easily make those changes. We've had great success of the last few years. The federal Parliament, the federal Parliament has chosen... to nevertheless recognize Quebec as a nation. So, let's give the word meaning."

Seeks to clarify

On Tuesday, Charest sought to clarify that he didn't mean he would amend or strengthen Bill 101. In an interview on CBC Montreal's call-in show Radio Noon, the Liberal leader said reopening Bill 101 isn't on his party's agenda.

"That has not been part of our plan, it is not part of our plan, and we do not intend to reopen Bill 101," he said.

But he made clear, twice, that he thinks measures to "promote and protect the French language" should apply at the federal level.

"I do think the federal government should be part of the broad consensus on language in Quebec, and that we should work together so that we're promoting and protecting the French language," Charest said.

"Are we going to work so that we are able to apply this consensus to everyone, including the fed government? Sure.... We don't have to keep it within the strict scope of what Bill 101 is."

Hot potato

Discussions over Bill 101, officially called the Charter of the French Language, are generally a political minefield with resonances across Canada. The law's requirement that French be twice the size of any other language on signs has been anathema to the province's non-French speakers, while critics contend some businesses are forced to bend over backwards to satisfy clauses that force organizations with more than 50 employees to operate in French.

But for many French-speaking Quebecers, Bill 101, introduced by the separatist Parti Québécois government of former premier René Lévesque, was essential to ensuring they could shop, work, get government services and generally feel at home in their native language, following decades of Anglo domination in the upper echelons of business and society.

Charest's rivals in next Tuesday's provincial election have already staked out ground on Bill 101.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault has said he wouldn't strengthen the law but, citing a surfeit of English in business in Montreal, would ensure it's fully enforced.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois announced early in the campaign her party would overhaul the legislation to make it apply to companies with as few as 11 employees, to force non-anglophone students to go to CEGEP colleges in French, and to close a legal loophole that allows students who attend private English-language schools to qualify to attend English public schools. All those announcements were announced previously in some form.